• Peter Byrne

Berkeley Questions 3


Photo by Stephen Bergin on Unsplash

I Do I read your mind? You’re wondering why I don’t bite into the big enchilada forthwith instead of dragging you through the clutter of George Berkeley’s life first. We know that his visits to Italy commented in English made him the ideal patron for an English-language association in Lecce. But why not broach an even better reason—his bridging of all sorts of English? He came out of County Kilkenny with a brogue, elevated his accent to a genteel Dublinese amongst the Anglo-Irish elite at Trinity College, and took the linguistic high jump to the stepfather island where he talked as posh as any London bigwig. Enough? Not for our Bishop. He would cross the Atlantic determined to preach in his doctored English not only to the heavy-handed colonists but to the Native Americans they strove to supplant.



II Was it one step too far? Perhaps, though its reach stretched to California and the city of Berkeley. We no longer associate the Anglican Church with proselytising zeal. But Berkeley saw himself as its missionary. It tied in with his economics and politics. He believed that the abysmal poverty of the Irish majority could only be remedied if they left their religion and adopted his official British variety. It was a conviction that led the Bishop to think that Native Americans, (whom he termed “American savages”), would embrace Anglicanism, become honorary, tea-drinking Englishmen and make themselves useful around the house. He would found a college to train the best of them to be missioners to their fellows. He would also educate the brighter minds of the plantation English to upgrade their somewhat neglected spiritual lives.



III Berkeley’s naïveté is best thought of as a bad case of blind spots. He had a superb scientific mind that proceeded on evidence only as long as his scarcely-scientific core principles were not violated. His fixation on Bermuda was wrong-headed and whimsical. Any of the British colonists he felt superior to could have told him that Native Americans shied away from sea travel and the hope that they would flock to an offshore island to taste the good news of the Gospel was preposterous. Bermuda was skint even of ingredients for a dystopia. Nevertheless, Berkeley let his wishful thinking rip and insisted Bermudans were special and not “descended from whores, vagabonds, and transported criminals” like settlers elsewhere. One suspects he was set on Bermuda because its isolation meant he would have things his own way. His college staff would not be distracted by dabbling in commerce. For he was in two minds about trade.




IV To 21st Century noses, Berkeley’s North American project has an odour of scam. Unfairly, we think of the latest tax-free foundation scandal. For years Berkeley’s prestige, connections and religious aims allowed him to amass charitable benefices and voluntary contributions. A huge parliamentary grant was promised. There was the Mrs Van Hamrigh affair. She was ‘Stella’, Jonathan Swift’s wealthy flirt who went sour on him when he favoured another and died leaving her money to Berkeley and Bermuda. (The Bishop swore he hardly knew the woman.) However, Berkeley was in no hurry to make what he saw as the biggest change in his life—expatriation. For he meant to stay in America. After endless dawdling, and a rapid marriage—he was 43 and it was 1728—he an his wife took ship. Rumour has it that the wind blew the Bermuda destined ship off course and, in fact, he disembarked on the American mainland. Bermuda would have to wait. At Middletown, Newport County, Rhode Island, Berkeley bought a plantation and several enslaved Africans to work it. He joined one of the many British settlements up and down the Atlantic coast that used slave labor to transmute sugar and tobacco into gold.

V Adaptable, Berkeley certainly was. In an age full of both utopian fantasists and ruthless commercial adventurers, he had a foot in both camps with the added certitude of being on God’s side. He had not given up the Bermuda scheme and kept touching up plans for the ideal city he wished to build there. However, in Westminster the wind changed. Prime minister Walpole, his man with clout, went cool. There would be no government handout. Berkeley blamed the ‘freethinking’ of the times. It was his blanket term for those who disagreed with him. He had not neglected to nurse his own fortune. Just as he had in Livorno in 1714, he preached his version of the word of God that peppered with mysticism the rules of how to get ahead of your neighbour. There were even a few genuine redskins in the pews. One wonders what they made of a sermon like that of 1731, a Berkeley performance described by a worshipper:

“Kept them two Hours, & an Half, w[hi]ch to Me is somewhat strange for such a Hypochondraical Disposition.”

VI The scrapping of the Bermuda project came as no surprise to the hard-scrabble colonists. They thought of indigenous Americans as pests to be eliminated. They felt that baptism would, as it had with African slaves, only make them uppity. Berkeley countered with the argument that—hold your hats!—becoming Christians would make them meeker and even better slaves. It was in line with his peculiar Christianity whose backbone was unconditional subservience to superiors in a hierarchical society topped by God and His temporal representatives, regularly Tories. Society descended in layers to the very bottom where Christians of the wrong sort dwelt just above slaves. Slavery was justified for Berkeley not only by the Bible but by his own white-skinned common sense.

VII The first half of the 18th Century—Berkeley’s years—did not lack thinkers who were curious about what we would call anthropology, the variety of humanity on the globe and its different ways of life. Berkeley, a leading light as a man of science and philosopher, was not wanting in curiosity. However, whatever he discovered about the world he always felt obliged to fit into an overall view. The European colonisation of the world had begun, but his view wasn’t European. It was narrower. He imagined a world converted to Anglicanism and run by two enforcers of hierarchy, God and His right-hand-man, the British Monarch. Matters that didn’t fit were ignored. He had a deep interest in linguistics, but hasn’t a word for Gaelic that surrounded his youth or for the languages of the indigenous Americans he aimed to convert. Moreover, their beliefs and practices were not to be investigated but wiped out to make them better servants in the very British universe to come. The one thing that would not surprise or displease the good Bishop in our world is the undisputed dominance of the English language.


VIII Berkeley’s influence on early American education was considerable. There is irony in the fact that the founders named the city of Berkeley California after him. In the 1960s, the seat of the University of California at Berkeley became a hotbed of denial of everything the Bishop believed in. His taboo on rebellion to sovereignty and his doctrine of ‘Passive obedience’ to superiors raised a horse laugh among opponents of the war in Vietnam when the top dogs were Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, and Lyndon Johnson. However, the Bishop left other traces behind in America. He had rebuilt a farmhouse at Middletown and called it ‘Whitehall’. It substantiates claims that Berkeley introduced Palladian architecture to America and follows from his Italian visits that opened his eyes to fine buildings. He left his property and library to Yale University.

IX 1732 after four years in America, Berkeley sailed back to England. Did he wave goodbye passing Bermuda? Did he check whether his principles were intact? Count his money? We hope he simply spared the ship’s crew any preaching and had a long snooze.

X Questions remain, some ponderous, some hilarious, but let this one end along with the wagging of his tongue. George Berkeley ended his life living in Oxford where, I like to think, his much exercised English accent underwent its final refinement before going forever silent entombed in Christ Church Cathedral.


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